As Jerry Melick held up a glass of sparkling champagne on Wednesday, July 9, a hush fell over everyone in the room.
To his right stood Iowa City's Zachary Goldsmith, to his left Laura Gilbert of Carterville, Ill. Both showed the fatigue of a long day, outfitted in chef's garb and holding back a mixture of emotion and excitement.
"Well here's to a successful restaurant," said Melick raising his glass, owner of the building now crammed with media, judges and community members.
He was holding on to the name of the third Iowa's Best Bite champion in West Liberty. A long day of deliberation, following months’ worth of preparation, had all come down to this moment.
With a smile and an aura of confidence he turned to the left, the name finally slipped out of his lips. "And I'd like to welcome the Copper Penny Bistrot."
With that Laura Gilbert gasped in disbelief. The silence was broken by applause as Melick handed her a glass. Somewhat dazed, she accepted with tears.
The two toasted and her restaurant, the Copper Penny Bistrot, officially became West Liberty's newest restaurant.
"Who knows a good real-estate agent, because we're moving," she said in an ecstatic and relieved sort of way.
Immediately the media moved in, filming, taking pictures and asking her questions. Completely surrounded by the storm she looked like the calm center of a hurricane. The hard part was finally over.
"Exhilarating, that's how it feels," Gilbert said about winning. "It's been a long time in the works. It is nice to see all of your hard work, experience and education pay off."
As the winner of the competition, she and her business/personal partner Robert Miller will receive a restaurant start-up package that includes $120,000 in financial help, marketing and a three-year lease in the soon to be renamed Century Grille Building. They have a tentative opening date for Oct. 1.
As for right now, they'll begin the process of moving from Illinois to Iowa.
Preparing for Best Bite
The Iowa's Best Bite Restaurant Challenge was held in West Liberty via the effort of West Liberty Economic Area Development, or We Lead as it's more commonly known.
Specifically, We Lead Director Shannon McNaul was instrumental in both bringing it to town and doing the leg work to prepare for the event. Having held We Lead's director position since December, this may be her crowning achievement of the 2014 year.
Iowa's Best Bite is the brainchild of Opposable Thumbs, a marketing agency based out of central Iowa that helps small businesses grow in the state. Previously the competition was held in Grinnell and Oskaloosa, Iowa.
Now in its third year and third competition, it was hosted in West Liberty. It pits restaurant hopefuls against each other in a cook-off judged by the community.
Competitors spent months visiting town, preparing a business and financial plan and creating videos. On the day before the cook-off, Tuesday, July 8, they spent time before a smaller core panel of judges explaining the business side of their restaurant.
However, the true meat and potatoes of the event began early on Wednesday. There were two finalists competing, Zachary Goldsmith with his idea known as "The Flavor of West Liberty," and Laura Gilbert.
She was up first and spent around two hours preparing a meal in an unknown kitchen with an unknown staff to an unknown audience, soon to be judged and questioned by the community.
As her food made its way onto the floor, the core judges returned along with an additional community panel of judges. They dug in, grading it on its quality. However, they had more on their minds than just taste.
"My parameters are different because I consider myself a foodie," said judge and WL resident Linley Heath. "While I'm looking for unique food I'm also looking for what will most benefit West Liberty."
This seemed to be the mindset of the judges. Taste aside, they were judging the contestants on character.
"I think it's a positive idea all around, we get our name out there by the media," said WL Mayor and judge Robert Hartman. "It gives our city a chance to put its best foot forward."
There was a diverse group of judges present, age range varied as well as hometown. Some even hailed from Nichols and West Branch.
"I'm hoping to see something not too exotic, but down to earth and small," said Nichols Mayor Cyle Geertz.
Judges also included Shayna Bruce and Suzanne Muntz who won the Oskaloosa competition with On the Green, Chef Helene of West Liberty Foods, Local Grounds owner Rob Krysh, West Liberty Veterinary Clinic owner Leon Larson and many more.
After preparing two appetizers, an entrée and dessert, Gilbert and Robert Miller stood in front of the room to be questioned.
For more than an hour judges grilled them on everything from food, ingredients, prices, decor and personal commitment for their restaurant idea, the Copper Penny Bistrot.
Gilbert laid out her idea for a European-American feeling restaurant that would both find food locally and specialized in supper. While fine dining happens downstairs, upstairs would be focused on beverages such as martinis and other cocktails.
They also discussed a curveball thrown in at the last minute. Both competitors were asked to prepare a hamburger for the judges.
"We wanted to make sure they were flexible," said Opposable Thumbs owner Brian Shultz. He emceed the competition. "Part of this was to make sure this is accessible to everyone, we thought 'What's more accessible than a burger?'"
Afterwards, Chef Zachary Goldsmith was up, going through the same process of serving food and questioning. Nearly five hours after it began it was time to talk turkey.
The community panel presented its ideas and sheets of opinions and results to the core panel. After discussion they left the room and the core panel began deliberation.
And the winner is…
Ultimately Gilbert and Miller were chosen as the winners. With the competition over they'll begin putting their plan into action, they have a target opening date of Oct. 1 for the Copper Penny Bistrot.
"I love this town, when I came here it was nice to find that West Liberty residents have a pride in their town," said Gilbert.
They both attended the Culinary Institute of America, based out of New York. They met working at the same restaurant, now they both own their own restaurant.
It's a lifelong dream for Gilbert, ever since the days she played restaurant in her childhood. Now that the game is over she can seriously begin turning her passion into a career.
Best Bite chooses BistrotJacob Lane · Wednesday, July 16, 2014